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Albena Bakratcheva


In what follows, "the I, or first person", will be omitted. However, Thoreau's warning will be taken for granted "that it is, after all, always the first person that is speaking".

In the process of spiritual emancipation which called forth the political change of 1989, Henry David Thoreau's works acquired a peculiar, hardly ever expected significance in Bulgaria. Under totalitarianism WALDEN was eagerly read as a bible for spiritual survival; thus the choice of a Thoreauvian slogan for our "velvet revolution" was in a way preconditioned. "Civil Disobedience" named the way to democratization; WALDEN provided "higher laws" - to survive and to go on.

There was no Bulgarian translation of WALDEN until after the political change, however. Thus, under the regime, Thoreau's masterpiece acquired also the additional charm of being experienced in a nonnative language as a self-discovered book about self emancipation. Immense were the depths of this uniquely bred Thoreauvian renaissance.

Read in Russian, German, by a handful of readers in the original too, it was WALDEN's stress on individuality and the individual capabilities that mostly matched the spiritual needs in Bulgaria at the time. And this was a time when individuality counted for nothing, and actually denoted only what had to be suppressed. For this reason above all WALDEN appeared to be for the inwardly "disobedient" Bulgarian readers a powerful artistic way to self-reliance and self-preservation. WALDEN's metaphoric solution to the problems of the marketplace was usually taken to be a metaphoric solution to the problems of spiritual survival in suppressive communist realities. So in a context that Thoreau in his time could - fortunately, - not predict, WALDEN was a revelation, a source of self-reliance and respect, a possibility to see beyond the visible - and have trust. Determined as it was by personal and historical disappointment, WALDEN was providing a metaphoric way to drive life under totalitarianism into a corner.

This was a way mostly productive for artists, of course. Thoreau's equation between art and life especially suited those Bulgarian writers, whom the regime had left with no actual choice. "I thought - one of them wrote in his memoirs, - I was living in order to accomplish in books, in an indirect poetic way some part of the freedom I would never see, I would never experience." This was very much a shared disposition among dissident intellectuals; what it led to was, in fact, a political tinting of the very nature of creativity. The poetic vision itself was thus charged with meanings of spiritual salvation beyond the repression of official communist ideology. This came only naturally, as the reality of totalitarianism seemed frozen and unchangeable; dissatisfaction with it could not but take the form of a poetically transformed activity. "Something must happen / in our verses at least,"a poet wrote in the early 70s, pointing out the role poetry was undertaking when actual life looked like a vacuum, designed specially for the annihilation of any kind of human vividness whatsoever. The communist regime seemed to have provided an eternity - a dead eternity that was draining out lives, dreams, talents. "A collective sleep on the parade square," as another Bulgarian poet called it and added to enrich the image, "Even dreaming is needless. / Someone else will dream for me."

If self-respect and truthful existence could only be preserved by keeping alert about things which the overspreading grayness of life was tending to obscure, then art was providing the only way. What should definitely be pointed at here is the desperateness with which this was grasped as a solution to living under communism. The longing for a worthwhile living had many faces, indeed. But it usually came close to the Thoreauvian idea of building oneself up to the height of one's own conceptions and thus contained in itself the preparation for grasping the idea itself. This kind of art-life experience was actually a form of peaceful, individuality-preserving disobedience to the regime.

It was exactly this atmosphere among the Bulgarian intellectuals that made an eminent dissident philosopher announce in 1988 that "the great time of the intelligentsia" had come. The very nature of the intellectual activity itself - creativity and the need for freedom and democracy inherent in it - was already seen as destined to become the leading force towards change. The hour had struck for the essential characteristics of intellectual (spiritual) activity to attain social significance and thus end the totalitarian reality. The gradual democratic achievements in the whole of Eastern Europe during the last communist decades were primarily provoked and inspired by the intelligentsia. Common - though in different degrees - to all the countries in the ex-communist bloc, including Bulgaria, these democratic achievements preconditioned the "velvet revolutions" of 1989 by making the effectiveness of nonviolent resistance - of civil disobedience - clear and convincing.

The political coup in Bulgaria was a nonviolent one, and so too were the political events that followed November 10, 1989. After the decades of obedient behavior it was the idea of civil disobedience that led the people to tremendous "blue" (as opposed to the communist "red") demonstrations in their wish for truth, for true Life. It was this idea that led the university students in the summer of 1990 to their strike, which was called "the beginning of our velvet revolution." Not surprisingly at all, Thoreau's Civil Disobedience was published in this very month, July 1990: this was exactly the time when "the man of Concord" was politically - and morally - mostly "concordant" with the social and the spiritual disposition of a reviving Bulgaria.

Thoreau's name was not the only one that was kept in mind in those days, of course, the great examples of Gandhi and Martin Luther King being widely known in Bulgaria. But it was Thoreau's idea, in fact, that gave the shape - and the name - to the peaceful resistance that set Bulgaria on the road towards democratization. The spiritual disposition shared by the outstanding part of Bulgaria's intellectuals proved itself to be, in many of its political, social, and even ecological nuances, good soil for Thoreau's art-life principles. Given such preconditions, the appearance WALDEN in Bulgarian was inevitable.

Let me finally reveal the mystery of my "depersonalized" approach. I wouldn't have been omitting my own I, or first person, "if there were any body else whom I knew as well".

By the time of the grand political change of 1989 I was in the middle of translating WALDEN into Bulgarian. "Civil Disobedience", which I also did in these months of tremendous changes, was already the slogan of our "velvet revolution". When "Walden" came out, the overall climate couldn't have been more adequate to it; hardly could the pulse of the ongoing process of political and spiritual emancipation be measured better than by Thoreau's different drummer. A novel significance was added to Thoreau's work.

A lot has happened since. And now, with the political change long behind our backs, the universal, i.e. deeply personal value of WALDEN, seems to have been uniquely clarified and is therefore cherished even more. The time of exaltation is far away and, happy as I was then to meet "Walden" with the insatiable hunger for freedom in my country, I am now back to my very own walking with it. And I treasure the "strange liberty" of walking it always anew, awake as it keeps me for the morning star of the sun...



© Albena Bakratcheva
© Електронно списание LiterNet, 02.12.2004, № 12 (61)

Panel on Thoreau's "Walden" in the Global Community - Thoreau Society Annual Gathering, Concord, Massachusetts, U.S.A., July 8-11, 2004.